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DEPT. OF CONNECTIONS
THE CONTRACTORS

Issue of 2003-05-05
Posted 2003-04-28
Appearing in The New Yorker
By Jane Meyer

Back when Americans were still debating whether there was just cause for a preëmptive strike against Iraq, few arguments were scrutinized more closely than the Bush Administration's contention that there were covert links between Al Qaeda and Iraq. At the C.I.A., analysts pored over aerial satellite photographs. At the Treasury Department, experts sifted through financial records. At the National Security Agency, Arab-speaking linguists eavesdropped on phone conversations. But, even after Secretary of State Colin Powell put his credibility on the line, in a damning, dot-connecting speech before the United Nations last February, questions persisted about the solidity of the alleged links between Saddam and Osama.

Now there is a new and demonstrable connection, but it is not the kind that the Bush Administration had in mind. In fact, it is more likely to fuel the speculations of conspiracy theorists than it is to put their fears to rest. It turns out that a money trail runs albeit rather circuitously from the lucrative business of rebuilding Iraq to the fortune behind Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden's estranged family, a sprawling, extraordinarily wealthy Saudi Arabian dynasty, is a substantial investor in a private equity firm founded by the Bechtel Group of San Francisco. Bechtel is also the global construction and engineering company to which the U.S. government recently awarded the first major multimillion-dollar contract to reconstruct war-ravaged Iraq. In a closed competitive bidding process, the United States Agency for International Development chose Bechtel to rebuild the major elements of Iraq's infrastructure, including its roads, railroads, airports, hospitals, and schools, and its water and electrical systems. In the first phase of the contract, the U.S. government will pay Bechtel nearly thirty-five million dollars, but experts say that the cost is likely to reach six hundred and eighty million during the next year and a half.

When the contract was awarded, two weeks ago, the Administration did not mention that the bin Laden family has an ongoing relationship with Bechtel. The bin Ladens have a ten-million-dollar stake in the Fremont Group, a San Francisco-based company formerly called Bechtel Investments, which was until 1986 a subsidiary of Bechtel. The Fremont Group's Web site, which makes no mention of the bin Ladens, notes that "though now independent, Fremont enjoys a close relationship with Bechtel."  A spokeswoman for the company confirmed that Fremont's "majority ownership is the Bechtel family."  And a list of the corporate board of directors shows substantial overlap. Five of Fremont's eight directors are also directors of Bechtel. One Fremont director, Riley Bechtel, is the chairman and chief executive officer of the Bechtel Group, and is a member of the Bush Administration: he was appointed this year to serve on the President's Export Council. In addition, George Shultz, the Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration, serves as a director both of Fremont and of the Bechtel Group, where he once was president and still is listed as senior counsellor.

Rick Kopf, the general counsel of the Fremont Group, which manages some eleven billion dollars in assets, confirms that the bin Laden family invested about ten million dollars in one of Fremont's private funds before September 11, 2001. He noted that the bin Laden family has not enlarged its stake since then, but he declined to provide additional details about its association with the firm. He also chose not to discuss the origin or the nature of the relationship between the bin Laden and Bechtel families, both of which made fortunes in huge construction projects in the Arab world. The Fremont Group evidently does not go in for connecting the dots. As Kopf said, "Ownership is private and is not disclosed."

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